A couple of years ago, I read an interesting column on why many Indians (mainly from the poorer section) still visit faith healers (shamans) instead of going to state-run hospitals when ill. The author argued that they do so because unlike many doctors, shamans are accessible, pocket-friendly and have not forgotten a basic truth about healing: they take a personal interest in patients and their families, which many doctors don't do anymore due to various constraints.
The article came back to me while I read the Supreme Court's Monday verdict on Shariat courts. Saying that such courts have no sanction of law, the SC ruled that nobody can run a parallel court in India, especially if the fundamental rights of Indians, guaranteed by the Constitution, are breached. The SC's views on extra-constitutional authorities are well known: in 2011, it had declared khap panchayats illegal and quoted Thomas Jefferson's 1776 speech in the American Declaration of Independence to explain its stand: "....all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator by certain inalienable rights that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
While I wholeheartedly agree with the SC's stand on such extra-constitutional bodies, I think it's time to examine why a certain section of people still flock to such courts and it is here the shaman story I narrated above is relevant.
While people access such illegal 'courts' because they have community/religious sanctions, one big reason, I think, they do so is because — like in the case of shamans versus doctors — the 'judges' are easily accessible, dispense justice quickly (even though in most cases they are horribly wrong and against Indian law), connect with them at a personal level and the 'legal' process is pocket friendly.
Now, compare such 'positives' with the Indian legal system: like India's rickety state health care system, it is over-burdened, time-consuming, inaccessible and prohibitively expensive (consultation may be free in government hospitals, but in most cases, expensive tests have to be done by the patients themselves). The legal system is so daunting that even people like us who have the wherewithal can also have a trying time accessing it.
Reacting to the judgment, Maulana Nizamuddin, Imarat Sharia, Patna, said: "We have never claimed to be on a par with a court of law. It's a good option for poor because it is fast and cheap".
And many trust such extra-constitutional authorities, I suspect, because they don't want to wash their families' 'dirty linen' outside the precincts of their closely knit communities.
The SC's judgments on extra-constitutional authorities have been widely feted. And, rightly so. But if it wants to fulfil the aim of such judgments — to wean away people from illegal courts — it must make the legal system less time consuming, cheaper and easily accessible to the poor.
Watch: Sharia courts not sanctioned by law, fatwas illegal, says Supreme Court